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Walking with Ghosts: Gabriel Byrne is unsparing of himself in memoir

Book review: What is striking is the intensity of the introspection, writes Colm Tóibín

Walking with Ghosts
Walking with Ghosts
Author: Gabriel Byrne
ISBN-13: 978-1529027433
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £16.99

“I pace up and down this cage. Lie down on the floor, breathe. I find no relief. The noise of the audience begins to fill the theatre like a distant sea rising and crashing.” This is Gabriel Byrne waiting to go on stage in New York in 2016 to play James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. As the performance approaches, he writes: “Stage fright. – Dear Jesus, do not let me think about that.”

What made Byrne’s portrayal of Tyrone astonishing in that production was not just his coiled, craggy presence, the demons all on show, Tyrone’s old swagger now a kind of brokenness, but how much gnarled sensibility Byrne managed to dramatise by making the language natural without losing any of its heightened, pressure-filled, declamatory tones. When a producer said to Byrne that actors “are always pretending”, Byrne replied: “Our job is to tell the truth. We are the channels through which the truth comes.”

This memoir juxtaposes moments from childhood with the author’s life as an actor. One short section, for example, ends with his mother recalling his diarrhoea on his First Communion day. The next begins: “In 1997, Gianni Versace sent me a note saying that he wanted to dress myself and Leonardo DiCaprio for his Paris fashion show.”

Byrne was raised in a time when cinemas were called “picture houses”, when men wore Brut and when sticky paper with dead flies hung from the ceiling. In a Hollywood hotel when he was starting out, since it was too hot, he called reception: “Do you think you could send up a fan?” Eventually, after much confusion, he had to explain that he had meant “a fan for cooling the room”.


His book is rare as an Irish memoir for the lack of rancour about his upbringing. Byrne’s parents emerge as loving, decent people. He doesn’t dwell on this, which makes it all the more convincing. His description of the decline and death of a loved sister is one of the most moving parts of the book. He takes religion seriously and writes vividly about being an altar boy – including his interest in altar wine – and memorably, about deciding, aged 11, that he had a vocation for the priesthood.


His description of spending four years in a seminary in England is grim. Sentence by chiselled sentence, it builds up a picture of an intense isolation and confusion. And also an innocence and fragility that makes the recalling of being abused by a priest all the more shocking and painful. “Even years later it feels like the night has been concreted over. I’ve been picking at it with a pin ever since, afraid to use a jack hammer, afraid of what’s buried in there.”

He writes about his encounter with other actors, notably Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Lawrence Olivier. But his book has none of the breathlessness of showbusiness autobiography. It is sometimes a dreamy book, lyrical, filled with images of things that slipped by and have faded. He writes passionately about his first love and hilariously about his early fame as an actor.

After his appearance as Pat Barry in The Riordans on RTÉ in 1978 and as an even more brooding and sexy version of the same in Bracken, he was, he writes, “a kind of Irish Heathcliff”. Soon: “A woman in a bar whipped off her bra and asked me to sign it. Schoolgirls chased me in the street.”

At the core of the book, however, is not his fame but something much darker and more elusive. Walking with Ghosts is an attempt to come to terms with the very elements that have created some of Byrne’s best performances, elements that come from pain and have caused pain. Byrne is unsparing of himself in the telling of this story.

It comes as a shock when he writes about what happened after a moment of great success, the premiere of The Usual Suspects at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. “You know this changes everything, a famous producer had said at the party, bearing-hugging me and whispering in my ear – You’re a f***ing star. I had recoiled, embarrassed at the word.”

Instead of enjoying his new fame (a girl says “I need your key to turn me on”), Byrne checks into another hotel, gets into bed in the afternoon and lives a dark night of the soul: “To a God I no longer believed in, I prayed: Have pity on my lostness. Don’t let my days bleed into each other like this. I am unravelling inside. Can you not see the terror that consumes me? I was without even a spark of hope. I had been exhausted by the act of living, worn out by the smallest task.”


Part of the problem was alcohol. “With famous actors and down-and-outs, I had bottles, glasses of the most expensive wines, or I finished other people’s leavings. It was all the same. Alcohol had become my most trusted friend, before it betrayed me and brought me to my darkest days. One night I fell down in a doorway and lay there shivering in a pool of my own piss until the police woke me. I couldn’t speak; I knew only that I had to have another drink.”

Whatever cumulative effect these dark memories produce in the reader, it is a huge relief to read the stark last sentence of a chapter: “Today, I am over twenty years sober.”

When Byrne does not write about his marriages, or his love life, or his children, this does not seem evasive, but as aspect of the very privacy that he describes with such candour: “I am by nature an introvert. For a long time I was ashamed of this. As if it were somehow a moral failing. I never felt I belonged anywhere . . . I have few friends. That also used to mortify me. Aren’t you supposed to have huge parties where scores of successful witty people surround you?”

Early on in his career, when Byrne was asked how he felt about being a sex symbol, he writes: “I was mortified by this question. I’d never thought about myself as handsome, the opposite in fact, with my thrice-broken nose and beetroot-coloured face, webbed with broken veins. I was socially awkward and anxious except when I drank and then I couldn’t be shut up . . . my eyes someone had described as two mournful piss holes in the snow.”

It is not just unusual for an actor to write about himself in the way Byrne does, but for anyone at all. Thus, it is hard to place Walking with Ghosts in the tradition of Irish memoir. What is striking is the intensity of the introspection. Byrne works with the idea that if you want to know where the damage lies, look inwards, describe the intimate, hidden spaces within the self. There is something fresh and liberating about this, a feeling also that it must have been a challenging book to write.

Byrne has written his own long day’s journey, and has won the right to end his book on a high note as, in the last line, he walks out on to the stage, into the light.